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Land and Life: Feudalism and Environmental Change in the Philippines

ECOLOGIES | Essays  }

Justin Umali / October 16, 2021
In the Philippines, the struggle against imperialism, feudalism, and bureaucratic capitalism is a precondition of any ecological sustainability. 2176 words / 9 min read

Image: Eduardo Casajús Gorostiaga, via. Unsplash.


In the Philippines’ Quezon province, coconut farmers make PHP 3 (£0.047) per kilo of whole coconut, and PHP 13,000 (£204.12) for a tonne of copra, the dried meat of the coconut used in the extraction of coconut oil. The coconut industry is one of the country’s largest, having exported 127,049 metric tons of copra last 2019.

Like most agriculture in the Philippines, the production of copra remains small-scale and limited to individual farmers, most of them paying rent to landlords. A dearth of infrastructure and development forces coconut farmers to sell their products to exporters at drop-dead wholesale prices, who in turn profit off an industry making upwards of £750 million (US$ 1 billion) annually.

The grave disparity between the farmer and the exporter can be traced directly to the Philippines’ status as an agricultural nation plagued by old feudalism. Agricultural land is concentrated in the hands of a small crop of dynasties, corporations, and foreign plantations - making it impossible for farmers to rise above their status as “the poorest of the poor.”

This also means that environmental issues, such as sustainable practice and government oversight, are cast by the wayside in favor of corporate profit.

Landlessness, corruption, and corporate expansion

According to the IBON Foundation, less than a third of all landowners own 80% of agricultural land, or approximately 10.8 million hectares, while half of all farms in the country are under tenancy, lease, and other forms of tenurial arrangements. The same is true in Quezon province, located at the southern portion of the Philippines’ Luzon island. Situated some 130 kilometers away from the nation’s capital of Manila, the province is home to over 513,000 hectares of agricultural land, ample fishing grounds in its coasts, and lush forests hugging both the Sierra Madre mountain range to the north and Mt. Banahaw to the west.

The Philippine elite look to Quezon and see a prime business opportunity. Old comprador families like the Ayalas and the Cojuangcos have divvied up available land in the province for their land-use conversion projects and corporate schemes. Infamously, the late Eduardo Cojuangco owned some 2,000 hectares of land in Quezon before he died last June 2020.

Aside from his family’s land holdings, Cojuangco’s company, San Miguel Corporation (SMC), aggressively pushes out peasant populations to pursue exclusionary development projects. In the municipalities of Sariaya and Pagbilao, SMC is forcing at least 3,000 people, mostly fisherfolk, to build a coal-fired power plant, a brewery, and pier and port facilities.

To do this, SMC has used harassment tactics through private security firms and accusations of using ‘grease money’ to sway local government decisions. SMC’s current CEO, Ramon S. Ang, has a current net worth of US$ 2.3 billion, according to Forbes. It would take a fisherman 1.54 million years to earn that same amount.

Cojuangco and his family in particular had long benefited from government protection. During the dictatorship of strongman Ferdnand Marcos, Cojuangco and his fellow crony, then-Defence Minister Juan Ponce Enrile, were involved in the coco levy fund scam – a supposed tax applied to coconut products to be used for “infrastructure projects.” Cojuangco and Enrile used the funds to buy up corporations and line their own pockets. Cojuangco, in particular, used the money to buy a majority share in the United Coconut Planters Bank and in SMC. Enrile, meanwhile, bought numerous logging companies all over the country while using his position as Defense Minister to have soldiers coerce peasants into forced labour under the guise of “anti-communism.”

Today, the coco levy fund has ballooned to some PHP 100 billion (£1.5 billion). The incumbent Duterte government has still yet to distribute these funds despite campaign promises and pressure from coconut farmers. Foreign interests also play a large part in displacing the country’s disenfranchised. In the northern edges of Quezon, near the Sierra Madre mountain range, Indigenous Dumagat communities have long opposed the construction of a dam which threatens to destroy more than 300 hectares of forest land and displace more than 20,000 Dumagat people.

The Kaliwa Dam project, which the Dumagat have opposed for four decades, now has renewed impetus under the incumbent Rodrigo Duterte government and China’s Belt and Road Initiative.

Undisguised Fascism

In almost all cases, the chief facilitator of this widespread corporate aggression and environmental destruction is the Philippine government itself. Decades of privatisation, corporate concession, deregulation, and foreign subservience resulted in government policy that is invested in aggressive ‘development’ projects and human rights abuse in the name of profit.

Decades of privatisation, corporate concession, and foreign subservience resulted in government policy that is invested in aggressive, ecologically destructive ‘development’, projects and human rights abuse in the name of profit.

For the Dumagat people, this translates to constant harassment of their communities by military forces. Dumagat leaders, especially ones connected to people’s organizations opposing the Kaliwa Dam project, are usually interrogated and accused of being sympathetic to the communist New People’s Army (NPA).

Currently, there are questions of the Kaliwa Dam project’s legality, following claims that the contracts given to Chinese firms were ‘onerous’. Progressives have accused the Duterte government of “trampling on the constitutional separation of powers” in order to service Chinese interests.

Quezon’s coconut farmers also face the same problem. Military units have encamped themselves near the municipalities of Lopez and Macalelon, and frequently accuse farmers of being NPA members. Some families, fearing for their lives, have been forced to evacuate their homes and leave the province of Quezon entirely. Incidentally, the National Irrigation Authority is planning to develop a dam and irrigation project in Macalelon, which threatens to submerge nearly a hundred hectares of land.

Disguising attempts to protect corporate interest as anti-communism is a long-standing tactic of the Filipino government. Under Duterte, this has resulted in the creation of a National Task Force to End the Local Communist Armed Conflict (NTF-ELCAC), an inter-agency initiative led by the Armed Forces of the Philippines with the goal of “ending the communist insurgency.”

In truth, NTF-ELCAC is used to justify forced displacements, illegal arrests and detention, and in the worst case, extra-judicial killing. Since the task force’s inception in December 2018, multiple killings and arrests of peasant activists, human rights defenders, and indigenous leaders have been reported; March 2021 saw the deaths of no less than 10 activists and the arrest of at least 8 more.

Progressive groups have come out to label the string of killings and arrests a ‘crackdown’ on dissent. It is also worth noting that all of these victims were targets of harassment, surveillance, and red-tagging before they were arrested or shot dead.

NTF-ELCAC has also used state machinery as a conduit for corruption. Peasants, urban poor, and Indigenous people are frequently the target of fabricated “surrender ceremonies,” where participants are either forced or tricked into appearing as “former NPA members” who surrendered to the government.

Under the government’s Enhanced Community Livelihood Integration Program (E-CLIP), members of the Communist Party of the Philippines, the NPA, and its people’s militias can opt to “return to the government fold” and receive up to PHP 65,000 (£1,000) in cash or kind. The usage of fake surrenderees, however, means that the money and goods go to military officers and paid actors. From June 2016 to December 2020, there have been 3,349 cases of faked surrender ceremonies all over the country.

But the true success of NTF-ELCAC and its 2021 budget of PHP 19.1 billion (£300 million) is in narrowing the avenues for democratic dissent and the legal space for people’s struggles. Since its formation, NTF-ELCAC has engaged in a sustained propaganda campaign to tag legal organizations as “fronts” of the CPP. Posters, flyers, and statements from its spokespeople usually try to paint legal progressive organizations as being part of the revolutionary Left.

Add to this the recent passage of the Anti-Terrorism Act last July 2020, which allows the Philippine government to proscribe organizations and individuals as ‘terrorists’, and we begin to see a bloody picture of how Duterte trained the entire bulk of state machinery against democratic dissent. It’s not a new concept either. Labelling anything left of fascism as ‘communist’ is the hallmark of American imperialism - one only has to look at the American experience in Iran, Indonesia, Latin America, for examples. The Philippines, America’s “little brown brother”, has learned well from its colonial master.

It is woefully effective. Aside from the threats and the extra-judicial killings of activists and mass leaders, it creates a chilling effect against potential dissenters and critics. Citizens are left docile and disinformed out of a fear of state suppression, while others are left frustrated but unable to act.

The turning of the state machinery against dissent creates a chilling effect. Citizens are left docile and disinformed out of a fear of state suppression, while others are left frustrated but unable to act.

People’s Struggles reign supreme

Despite this, people’s initiatives remain committed to their intersecting causes. Although the Duterte government holds a supermajority both houses of Congress, a small bloc of opposition lawmakers are still adamant in pushing for land rights. The leftist Makabayan bloc has been trying to push for land reform under its Genuine Agrarian Reform Bill. It promises to “implement genuine agrarian reform in order to finally end the feudal and semi-feudal exploitation of [Filipino] farmers” by free redistribution of land owned by transnational companies, haciendas, and lands that have “remained idle.”

Free distribution is a marked improvement from previous land reform schemes, which award parcels of land to farmers at cost. More often than not, farmers fail to make payments due to the high cost of production and shrinking profit margins, and they are forced to sell back the land. However, it remains unlikely that GARB will be passed into law anytime soon. A government owned by landowners and compradors has no interest in seeing their economic interests threatened.

With land reform through the law unlikely, farmers’ organisations all over the country are resorting to more direct action. In haciendas with idle land, farmers have taken up a form of protest farming, called bungkalan (tilling). Bungkalan is a form of collective farming meant to assert their rights to land, and to achieve food security for the people in their community. Of course, it doesn’t come without its costs. The army has called bungkalan part of a “destabilisation plot,” and landlords usually don’t take too kindly to farmers asserting their rights. In some cases, the cost is their lives – on October 2018, nine farmers from Hacienda Nene in Sagay, Negros Occidental were massacred for asserting their rights to land; just one episode out of the over 300 peasant killings since Duterte came to power.

In haciendas with idle land, farmers have taken up a form of protest farming, called bungkalan, a form of collective farming meant to assert their rights to land, and to achieve food security for the people in their community.

But the most potent force in the Philippines, by far, is the revolutionary movement. In the NPA’s base areas, guerrillas and farmers are engaging in land reform under the banner of agrarian revolution, a manifestation of peasant political power gained through armed struggle. Agrarian revolution is meant to dismantle the feudal system of land ownership and give back land to the peasantry; a more direct way of achieving the aims in GARB.

Peace talks between the government and the National Democratic Front of the Philippines, the organization representing the CPP’s Red Power in the countryside, have also revolved around socio-economic reforms as a way to address the roots of armed struggle. The proposed Comprehensive Agreement on Socio-Economic Reforms has land reform and workers’ rights as its central issues. All of these are prerequisites in the struggle for environmental justice. At the end of the day, farmers cannot care for the environment when land is continually dispossessed from them and converted into industrial zones. Issues of pollution, CO2 output, and sustainability are directly linked to issues to land-use conversion, land grabbing, feudalism, and foreign intervention.

For semi-colonies like the Philippines, it is almost impossible to talk about meaningful environmental sustainability without first addressing that more fundamental forces are at work. Targets like the United Nations’ 2030 Sustainable Development Goals are only feasible without the constant bearing down of foreign and corporate interest.

For semi-colonies like the Philippines, it is almost impossible to talk about meaningful environmental sustainability without first addressing that more fundamental forces are at work.

It comes as no surprise that the European and North American nations, which have benefited the most from the global imperialist system, are the ones closest to achieving these sustainability goals. The hard truth is that this prosperity comes with the price of exporting inequality to the “global South”; colonies and semi-colonies in perpetual crisis due to imperialism, feudalism, and bureaucratic capitalism. The fight for sustainability and climate justice will not stop in the Philippines. But any struggle for climate justice worthy of the name must emphasise ‘justice’ over ‘climate’: it must not only fight for the environment, but for the people living in it too.


Author:

Justin Umali (@jaasteeyn)

Justin Umali is a journalist, writer, and activist in the Philippines. He is a regular correspondent for Bulatlat.com and currently works with Bagong Alyansang Makabayan Laguna.